A Playful Decision: How do you choose which theater company’s show is right for you?

Scan the entertainment pages of the local papers and you’ll find many productions staged by a large variety of companies in many venues, but nothing that tells you what to see. Choosing a play can be as difficult as selecting a bottle of wine from an unfamiliar list.

“What a lot of people don’t realize,” Tyson Blanquart, theater editor for Playback STL, said, “is when it comes to theater, St. Louis actually has a vibrant and diverse community, with nearly every theatrical niche filled by one or more companies.”
Local options include professional companies, community theater, musicals, nonmusicals, college theater, original productions and premieres.

With so many options, prospective theatergoers might want to start by reading reviews along with scanning event listings. Blanquart posts reviews on the magazine’s Come Out and Play page, a list of links to the different companies, as well as theater news on both a local and national level. Regarding reviews, Blanquart recommended them “not necessarily to let someone else form your opinion but to see if a show is something you think you’d be interested in seeing.”

Professional productions will not necessarily be better than amateur or college productions. Many other factors are at play, including the unique vision of the director and the level of skill of the actors. But most people who are involved in theater are there because they love it, not because it pays their bills.

Michelle Hand, co-founder of The Orange Girls (a new theater group), acts for both professional (paying) and community (amateur, nonpaying) theaters and described the difference between the two this way: “Professional companies offer better amenities: rights to newer plays, nice dressing rooms, legions of designers to worry about the set and costumes. In community theater, you often have the director or actors building their own costumes and sets.” Doing the work leads to a “feeling of satisfaction.” But it also takes more time – and, Hand said, “It is nice to get paid.”

However, in the opinion of Teresa Doggett of West End Players Guild, a community theater company, “The production values are [nearly] always … better at professional companies, which tend to have a core of talented and extremely dedicated members.” But, she continued, “In St. Louis, there is not a huge difference between community theater groups and smaller professional companies.”

Some actors are billed on playbills as “Equity actors,” which means they are in the Actors’ Equity Association. Equity guarantees actors and stage managers will be paid a certain amount, but also restricts actors from performing in many productions which do not pay. Some local professional theaters hire only union workers in every role – actors as well as stagehands and tech people. Others hire a mixture of both, and some professional theaters, particularly the less-mainstream ones, are non-union.

Kimi Short, a local actor, said she went from “non-Equity to Equity to non-Equity,” making the jump out of the union for three reasons. First, musical theater is her focus, and it seemed there weren’t enough Equity shows within the genre. Second, she wanted to be able to participate in more challenging, lesser known musicals, which weren’t being produced for Equity actors; and third, she wanted to be able to “decide where I performed and what compensation I was willing to accept, even if it meant none at all.”

She sees the West End Players as the “most avant-garde” of the local community theaters, “regularly producing plays that tackle controversial issues.” West End’s next production is “Two Rooms,” the story of “an American held hostage by Arabs in Beirut [and] his wife, powerless at home.” Following that will be “Under Milk Wood,” a Dylan Thomas play about “a smug and ingrown Welsh fishing village,” in which Doggett is excited to be acting because it goes back to her Welsh roots.

“The best way to [choose a show] is simply to pay attention to the shows being produced and see which ones speak to you,” said Blanquart. His taste “leans toward the smaller, grittier, urban companies” such as Hydeware Theatre, The Tin Ceiling and Washington Avenue Players’ Project because “they are very passionate about what they do and make their shows work despite the fact they don’t have a lot of money.” Once you’ve sampled a few shows from different companies, you too may find your taste favors one or another type
of company.

In the meantime, reading about the companies can give you some guidance. Many have a specific focus, which can help guide you toward companies you feel an affinity for.

There is nothing wrong with picking a performance because you like the name, know someone associated with it or are drawn to the advertising. I chose what turned out to be one of my favorite shows, New Line Theatre’s production of “Bat Boy: The Musical” because I liked the poster. Blanquart put New Line in a list of larger theater companies that “have established themselves as powerhouses that will guarantee you a great show nearly 100 percent of the time.” Other companies on this list include HotCity Theatre, St. Louis Black Repertory, St. Louis Shakespeare, Stray Dog Theatre and New Jewish Theatre.

Most of the companies’ Web sites will give you information about upcoming productions. For instance, on HotCity’s page “The Exonerated” is described as “the true stories of six innocent survivors of death row. Their stories, told in their own words. Stories you won’t ever forget.” Some companies, such as New Line, offer abundant background information about each production, making it easy to inform yourself. And if you want to choose based on the look of the posters, it just so happens that New Line’s coming season includes a second production of “Bat Boy.”

Scott Miller, artistic director of New Line Theatre, said he thought “the most important thing for someone looking for which show to see is to discard preconceptions.” Even if you’ve seen a play it doesn’t mean all productions of the play will be similar. “When you see an [upcoming] New Line production of “The Fantasticks” or “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the ArtLoft Theatre, you will be much closer to the stage than if you saw the same production at The Muny or even a community theater, with “the front row literally 2 or 3 feet from the stage,” according to Miller.

“Theater isn’t about distraction,” Miller said. “It’s about connection. It’s about community.” In a world where we spend most of our time looking at a screen of some sort, theater stands out as an activity in which “a bunch of strangers come together in a darkened room to share an experience, to share being human, to connect to each other.”

“Whatever company you decide to support,” Blanquart said, “the important thing is that you’re supporting local theater at all.”